Transforming Oxford Street Part 1: The Bustterfly Effect

Some readers may already be aware of the current consultation on the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street between Orchard Street (just to the west of Selfridges) and Oxford Circus. This is part of a programme to realise some of the Mayor’s manifesto commitments. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the scheme has become equated with removing buses (and other remaining traffic) from this section of Oxford Street. It’s only collateral damage In reality, in the context of the overall scheme, the removal of buses from Oxford Street could be seen as a minor piece of collateral damage – it is certainly not what the scheme is primarily about. That is not how local residents, concerned that all the traffic will be diverted into local streets, see it. It has also not gone down too well with many proponents of bus usage – both individuals and organisations. Consequently, the scheme is controversial. But then, if it wasn’t controversial it would have been done years ago. We put the cart before the horse The logical thing to do would be to look first at the scheme as a whole, its objectives and how it is trying to achieve them. But, as is often the case, focus gets drawn to one aspect of the scheme and, in this case, this is that removal of buses. So, to get this out the way and enable us to look at the total scheme without being distracted by bus issues, we have decided to focus in part 1 of this series on the issue of removing buses from Oxford Street. Rerouting or curtailing bus routes has given rise to a lot of comment but it seems that, up to now, no-one, individual or organisation, has looked at all documents associated with the consultation to see what the plans actually entail. In particular, when looking in detail at some of the bus routes involved a slightly different picture emerges from the general overall picture given in the consultation. Not an easy job When Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor in 2016 it was soon clear that a priority during his tenure would be removing traffic from Oxford Street. Furthermore, the objective of doing this for almost the entire length of Oxford Street by the time the Elizabeth line opened in December 2018 meant that timescales were inevitably going to be tight. A quiet moment, traffic-wise, in Oxford Street TfL and the new deputy Mayor for Transport, Val Shawcross, were quickly on the case. Unsurprisingly, they quickly realised that you could not just look at Oxford Street in isolation. The effect of removing buses from the street would not just lead to localised effects. At the same time, they were aware that bus passenger traffic in central London was dropping sharply and this was largely due to increased traffic congestion. This meant that people walked or took the Tube or other means to complete their journey – or did not make the journey at all. On top of that, the basic bus network structure had not really changed much over the years and seemed to be based on what was historically seen as the desired network. A thorough overhaul of the bus network seemed well overdue and now was the time to do it. Considering the bigger picture As Shawcross explained to the now-defunct TfL Finance and Policy Committee shortly after taking office, there was no point in looking at Oxford Street in isolation when any pedestrianisation scheme would have ramifications throughout most of Zone 1. Or, as she put it, you could well find yourself having to alter the stopping arrangements in Trafalgar Square as a consequence of changes you made in Oxford Street. It was quickly decided to act on a long-suggested plan to significantly reduce the number of buses travelling along Oxford Street. The number of buses, many of them often nearly empty, had almost become a standing joke. It certainly seemed to many members of the public that buses in Oxford Street couldn’t move because of the presence of other buses. Broken links The reduction in the number of buses going along Oxford Street appears to have taken place without too much concern on the part of the public. TfL calculated the number of ‘broken links’ (assumed to be per day) where a bus passenger could no longer make their through journey at around 35,000. Passengers affected would either have to change buses where before they did not have to, walk for part of their journey, find some other means of making the journey – or simply not make it. Some fare-paying passengers who now had to change buses would not experience an increase in cost because they had a Travelcard or the daily bus cap already applied to them, or because they were able to take advantage of the new hopper fare. Even so, changing buses would be an inconvenience. London Travelwatch regard the number broken links with extreme concern. Looking at the absolute numbers does make it seem worrying, but the number of people affected amounts to around 700 reasonably filled buses. This is a significant number of people but to what extent each is affected varies. For some it might just mean a slightly longer walk. Taken in the context of total bus travel within Zone 1 for the whole day it is still significant but nevertheless only affecting a small minority of bus travellers. TfL take the view that such inconveniences tend to be short-lived as there is a high rate of ‘churn’ in bus travel, so over time people adjust their place of work, places they visit for leisure and even the location of their home in the light of the transport system as it is. Upside downtown There is also, arguably, the upside of the reduction of buses along Oxford Street as those buses that remain can make their journeys more quickly. There seems to be no evidence published concerning this, one way or the other, and the suspicion … Continue reading Transforming Oxford Street Part 1: The Bustterfly Effect